RAF Northolt Nightshoot II Review
Thursday 19th March
After the success of the first night shoot at RAF Northolt, held back in January, Phil Dawe and the team at 32 (The Royal) Squadron moved quickly to organise a repeat performance, before the lighter Spring evenings meant that such an event would be made impractical. A date in March was chosen, along with a special theme - support helicopters. A mouth-watering provisional list of invited aircraft was released, and the event was keenly anticipated by all. But would Phil and the team be able to pull off another event so soon after the first?
reports from a very chilly RAF Northolt. Additional photography from and .
Firstly, let's get the negative stuff out of the way. The original list of participants released included some superb support from many of the RAF's helicopter squadrons. In the days leading up to the photo shoot, many of these aircraft cancelled for a variety of reasons, all of them understandable and reasonable. The commitments our armed forces have in multiple theatres throughout the world means that there simply aren't that many helicopters available in the UK at any one time, and those which are available are fully committed to crew training and routine duties. Flying hours for crew and aircraft are limited, meaning that any appearance at an event such as this will need to be justified as training hours.
With the DHFS at RAF Shawbury being heavily involved in training new helicopter crews, it was hardly surprising that they were unable to send any aircraft to Northolt. Training commitments also caused the nonappearance of the promised Chinook, and one of a pair of Pumas was also a late no show, due to a technical problem. A hydraulic problem meant that the 78 Sqn Merlin was forced to make a precautionary landing at a disused airfield in the midlands, and the Metropolitan Police EC145 was also forced to divert with a fault! All of this was beyond the control of the team at Northolt, who had done everything possible to attract a varied line-up to the event.
Once again, the event began with a short health and safety brief from OC 32 Sqn, Wg Cdr Steve Pitcher. Wg Cdr Pitcher also broke the news that many of the intended participants would now, in fact not be arriving, but lifted spirits by informing us that one of the 32 Sqn helicopters required a hover check, so he would be performing it during the event. With the formalities out of the way, it was on to the flight line, to photograph the participants.
In common with the previous evening event, there were no barriers, and the visiting helicopters were well spaced out on the ramp, with no obstructions to photography. All of the losses meant that the static display line started to look a little thin, but, as usual, 32 Sqn were excellent hosts, and displayed all of their available aircraft, in this case a pair of Agusta A109E helicopters, and a pair of BAe125 jets. Visiting aircraft were a yellow Sea King from 22 Sqn and a Puma from 33 Sqn.
At the first night shoot, the highlights were the Merlin departure, and the A109E with rotors turning. The team had obviously learned the lesson that helicopters look superb when powered up at night, hence the focus on helicopters at the second shoot. Shortly after the gates had opened, the Sea King crew walked out to their aircraft and prepared for departure. Soon, the engines were started and the rotors began turning. The crew ran through their checks on the ramp, and made sure to give the assembled photographers ample time to get a variety of shots. They also demonstrated several lighting configurations, again giving some variety in the photos obtained and shiny yellow helicopter looked truly superb in the lights on the ramp.
Next to depart was the Puma, parked down the far end of the ramp. Lighting was definitely more challenging at that end of the line, but the Puma still looked great, especially with the lights and aircraft strobes reflecting from the underside of the rotor disc. Once again, the crew made sure that everyone got plenty of photos before departing.
The final act of the evening was also the highlight. At the previous night shoot, one of the 32 Sqn pilots had started up one of the A109s to allow photographers to take pictures with the rotors turning. This time, Wg Cdr Pitcher went one step better and lifted the helicopter a few feet off the ramp to carry out a minor system hover check. He hovered the helicopter there, before slowly moving around the ramp, allowing the delighted photographers the opportunity to shoot the flying helicopter from several different angles. The boss obviously has a steady hand and was able to hover the aircraft accurately enough for everyone to get the shots they wanted and the aircraft was declared serviceable thereafter.
After landing and shutting down the helicopter, the event was concluded, but the photographers were not rushed from the flight line just yet - there was plenty more time to shoot the remaining aircraft, and also to buy souvenirs in the warmth of the 32 Sqn hangar! When everyone had taken their fill of photos, most of the assembled photographers decamped en masse to the terminal building, to warm up their hands and enjoy a well earned bacon butty, thanks to Denise in the café!
This was another superb event organised by Phil Dawe and 32 Sqn. Despite the number of cancellations, the team managed to put together another very interesting and varied evening. Phil works tirelessly to organise these events, and I know his efforts are much appreciated by all those in attendance. The efforts of all the personnel of 32 (The Royal) Sqn also deserve mention, especially the Officer Commanding, Wg Cdr Steve Pitcher. Wg Cdr Pitcher and his team could not have made us more welcome, and flying the A109 was really the icing on the cake of a great evening. The event could not have gone ahead without the support of the Station Commander, Gp Capt Guy van den Berg and thanks are also due to the staff of SERCO and Sloan Helicopters, along with the Defence Estates management team at RAF Northolt.
The two evening events have so far raised over £3,000, money which has been put towards the restoration of the Battle of Britain Operations Room at RAF Northolt. The target is to raise £25,000 for the project, and events like this go a long way to helping reach that total. The format obviously works very well, especially for helicopters, and everyone seemed to come away very happy with their results.
The success of the first two evening events at Northolt, and the continuing success of the annual photocall, demonstrates the popularity of special events such as these, where a limited number of photographers are permitted exclusive, up-close access to operations. These events will always prove to be popular with photographers, so it is to be hoped that the team at RAF Northolt will continue to work to organise them in the future.